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(9th LD) S. Korea's first evacuation plane arrives in China's Wuhan

All News 23:30 January 30, 2020

(ATTN: CHANGES dateline; RECASTS headline, lead to highlight arrival of S. Korea's evacuation plane in China; UPDATES with more details, minor edits in paras 2-6)
By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL/WUHAN, China, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- A South Korean evacuation plane arrived Thursday at an airport in China's coronavirus-hit city of Wuhan to take home hundreds of South Korean citizens from the city currently under a lockdown.

The chartered Korean Air flight was expected to pick up around 360 South Korean citizens from the eastern Chinese city and its neighboring areas.

Seoul officials said the flight will depart the Chinese city early Friday to return to Seoul's Gimpo airport.

It earlier took off from Incheon International Airport, the main gateway to Seoul.

A chartered Korean Air plane is towed to a parking area at Seoul's Incheon International Airport on Jan. 30, 2020, before its departure for China's Wuhan on a mission to evacuate hundreds of South Korean citizens trapped there under a lockdown due to the outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness caused by a new strain of coronavirus. (Yonhap)

The flight was one of two originally planned under Seoul's evacuation plan to bring home some 700 South Koreans who have requested to return home.

Its departure from Seoul, however, came after hours of delay caused by slower-than-expected approval from Chinese authorities.

"We believe that they (the Chinese) are working in a way in which they give the go-ahead for one plane and then receive requests sequentially, since it has been receiving many other requests from the U.S. and Japan for provisional flights," Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said earlier.

Seoul officials did not give details of the reason for the delay, but observers said that Beijing might want to avoid the image of foreigners escaping China in an unsettling exodus.

Sources say that the Chinese government refused to allow two Japanese planes to fly to Wuhan in one day and also turned down U.S. flight schedules multiple times before finally approving them.

The government also plans to continue talks with Beijing over ways to take care of South Koreans remaining in Wuhan, mostly because they have family members there who hold Chinese citizenship. China said earlier it won't allow its own citizens to join the evacuation.

Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-ho explains to reporters the government's evacuation plan to bring back South Korean nationals from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak, at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Yonhap)

Seoul hopes to send at least one more flight to China on Friday, according to officials here.

"Whether they are abroad or in Korea, wherever they are, the state's basic mission is to protect the safety and lives of our citizens," Seoul's Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-ho told reporters at the Incheon airport.

With a reduction in the number of evaluation flights, at least for now, more people may now have to board the plane home, Lee noted, adding that additional protective steps will be taken to prevent any in-flight infections.

"They are basically showing no signs of being ill. So we have strengthened protective measures so as to bring them all together on the plane," Lee said.

He said consultations with China are still under way to ensure that the remaining citizens can return home as early as possible.

Seoul announced the plan to airlift its nationals out of Wuhan on Tuesday, shortly after Beijing sealed off the city, suspending flights and other forms of transportation there, as well as for the surrounding regions, amid the rapid spread of the disease.

Seoul has been going all out to stem the spread of the pneumonia-like illness that has killed 170 and infected over 7,700 in China alone.

South Korea has reported six confirmed cases of the virus infection since early last week, with no fatalities so far. Health authorities are tracking 2,991 individuals who flew from Wuhan between Jan. 14 and 23, considering the disease's 14-day incubation period.

(9th LD) S. Korea's first evacuation plane arrives in China's Wuhan - 3

The government said the evacuated people will be put into isolation at two different public facilities in Asan, South Chungcheong Province, and Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, in the country's central region.

But the quarantine plan has drawn strong opposition from the residents in the areas worried about potential infection. Some residents in Asan staged sit-in protests, blaming the government for making the decision without their consent.

Scuffles broke out late Wednesday as some angry residents in Jincheon threw water bottles and paper cups at government officials, including Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip, who had come to brief them on the plan and to ask for their understanding.

Of about 700 people who have applied for the transfer, those with no symptoms will be transported first, and they will be subject to a quarantine check right before and after the flights, and will stay at the facilities for at least 14 days, according to the government.

elly@yna.co.kr
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